Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Anatomy of conspiracy theory

In an article in New Scientist, Patrick Leman discusses the psychology of conspiracy theories.

Some interesting points sound somewhat axiomatic, but worth spelling out.

First, the propensity to cling to a particular conspiracy theory depends on the age of the proponent at the time of the event in question. The story goes that a particular event, sudden, shocking, international in scale, can affect someone on a personal level more easily when they are between 20 and 35 years old - so conspiracies around Kennedy and 9/11 generally attract different age groups.

There is also a connection between ethnic minorities and conspiracy belief, as well as income level. Both are explained by anomie - those with a higher feeling of disempowerment tend more to hold to conspiracies. This is not surprising, as with the corollary, that those with higher income or empowerment are less attracted to conspiracies. After all, why would you be as concerned if you're doing well personally?

Another psychological analysis finds that people often assume that a significant event is likely to have significant causes - ie more trivial explanations are discounted the more impact the event has. In a study, volunteers were given either of two accounts of an attempted assassination of a fictional president. Conspiracy was more likely to be read into it if the president died than if the president lived.

In another such study involving a fictional assassination attempt, additional but ambiguous or neutral information was later added. It was found to be used by people to bolster whatever conclusions they had already drawn. Thus either the conspiracy or non-conspiracy account is bolstered by the same piece of information.

I can say that I fit the templates here in some respects. I'm not inclined to be drawn by any conspiracy talk about the death of Diana Spencer, or by the World Trade Center tragedy, but more willing to listen to talk around JFK. (But then, that latter saga is quite smelly.)

Then again, I think that the machinations of international capital are more than enough to propel collusion without multiplying unnecessary factors (Occam's razor). Does that constitute conspiracy theory?

Monday, July 30, 2007

Bye bye Bergman

Ingmar Bergman died today.

I've only seen a handful of this highly-influential director's films, but they are memorable, and densely-packed with imagery and allegory.

He himself was very interesting to listen to. At a film festival a few years ago, I saw a documentary interview with him (possibly Intermezzo), which was riveting, despite - or because of - the minimalist cinematic style, which consisted of little more than his talking head.

Of course, the films of his that I found most rewarding - and layered - were those around the late 50s to early 60s. Most notable, of course, was The Seventh Seal, in which a knight traversed a countryside at a time of severe plague. The scene in which the knight played a game of chess with death personified is one of the most memorable in the lexicon of cinema, oft-quoted - and -parodied.

Given my low tolerance for existentialism, that film is surprisingly captivating for me. One of the few that I could watch several times, to continue to extract nuance.

"I wonder if I'll end up like Bernie in his dream
A displaced person in some foreign border town
Waiting for a train part hope part myth
While the station changes hands
Or just sitting at home growing tenser with the times
Or like that guy in "The Seventh Seal"
Watching the newly dead dance across the hills..."

Bruce Cockburn, How I spent My Fall Vacation

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Harry Potter - past the end

For what it's worth, there's more to read about Harry Potter. Mugglenet.com has some pretty good fan fiction. Fan fiction on the net is pretty dire, but that particular site is so well trafficked that the quality is better than most.

There's also Mugglenet.com's book "What Will Happen In Harry Potter 7?" It's not bad for extracting a few alternative realities. They actually got a couple of crucial plot points spot on, but a few others were off, as you'd expect. But the quality of analysis is high - again something that's predictable, with the amount of resources they have to draw upon.

But don't read that book before Deathly Hallows - it's a bit of a spoiler. Deathly Hallows is a very good read, and doesn't bear spoiling.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The End of Harry Potter

Well, I inadvertently finished the 7th and final Harry Potter book.

It was too hard to stretch it out any longer, so it was gone in less than a week.

Next: The Eighth Harry Potter book. It's not what you think.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Mule's Foal

It's funny what turns up.

I finally got around to reading a book that had been lying around for a while - a reject from Parramatta Library.

The Mule's Foal, by Fotini Epanomitis, was published in 1993 with assistance from the Australia Council for the Arts, a Federal Government arts body. It won the Vogel Award, which gives it instant pedigree. Still it languished on the shelves of Parramatta Library, and on mine.

It's quite a read. Funy, fabulous, very entertaining, and surprisingly short at 150 pages. It's very much in the style of magical realism; it's hard to imagine the author not having read Garcia Marquez' 100 Years Of Solitude.

It's set in a small Greek village, where life is a grind, death is cheap, and Turks are by turns villains and friends. Unnatural weather and actions are equally unsurprising, everything strange is treated as everyday, and the everyday is uncommon.

Strongly recommended.

The week that Theodosios announced the sharing of the fields it had been forty degrees every day. At his son's kafeneio Theodosios announced that the fields of the League of Good Men, the fields of the marshland, would be shared amongst the people of the village. Every single family would get something (even the Turks and the whores) and those with little or no land would get two fields. People did not know whether Theodosios was a criminal, a mad man or a saint. He gave to widows, to Turks, he gave to the beggars and to the rich. Some were confused, some were furious. Could Theodosios do this, they wanted to know? The widows of the League of Good Men had been celebrating at the kafaneio every week since the disappearance of their husbands, and they made no claims to the fields.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Legal disintegration in Australia and USA

The case against Mohamed Hanif has fallen apart in a big way. Now that any "evidence" that he assisted the UK would-be terrorists is drying up, nobody really wants to know about him.

Least of all the Australian government, whose ministers have fallen over each other to contradict themselves on the reasons for detaining him.

Now the Australian Law Council has written a scathing report on the Australian and US Governments' treatment of David Hicks. They called the US military commission process that convicted him a "charade that only served to corrode the rule of law".

The Law Council president, Tim Bugg, said: "Clearly Dr Haneef is going to be subjected to a far better process because he's in the Australian justice system. But nonetheless the Hicks case highlighted that a citizen's rights were simply jettisoned because of political considerations, rather than considerations of principle."

Of course, the difference between Haneef's and Hicks' cases is that Hicks pleaded guilty. But after five years in Guantanemo Bay, Hicks came out and said he was ready to plead anything to get out. That was before the plea bargain, which constituted the only admission or conviction of guilt.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Ethics of unequal warfare

It's hard to find any ethical basis in the Taliban, or in the sectarian violence in Iraq, or in suicide bombing in civilian areas, or indeed in any violence that targets civilians.

Yet, for the most part, the situations above involve motivation for a putative "greater good".

The concentric circles described yesterday, from yourself in the middle, to those closest to you next out, all the way to the rest of humanity who you don't know or care about too much, would seem not to apply to suicide bombers. If they're so ready to destroy themselves, they can't care too much about themselves or their loved ones.

Ahh, but that's the greater good at work. Yet it must be a perversion of any ethical framework that makes any claim to universality, if it involves killing people who are not directly waging war.

My instinctive feeling is that any credo that involves valuing those people not directly known to you, must have some aspect of universality. And those that don't value people in the distance, don't. Thus killers of civilians must have a corrupted ethical framework.

And conversely, there is some hope for a civilisation that invokes sanctity of human life. As Western liberalism does, albeit sometimes only nominally.

Violence always brutalises. Societal violence - capital punishment, corporal punishment - does too.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Ethical question in Harry Potter

An ethical dilemma in the latest Harry Potter book.

In the first instance, the question would be: do you save yourself first? Is your life more worth fighting for than others'? In fact, if you look at aircraft drills, they encourage you to tend to your own breathing apparatus, before attending to your child. If anyone, save yourself, because you certainly can't help anyone further if you don't.

Traditionally, there are concentric rings. In the centre is yourself. The next largest circle is your immediate loved ones. And so it goes on outwards, from the people who are closest to you all the way out to the people that you don't care whether they live or die. Or worse.

And that's the picture of your world. As you go outwards, the population within each circle gets larger, but your connection to them gets weaker.

At what point does it become meaningful to sacrifice some in an inner circle for a greater number in the outer circle? In some ethical frameworks (including some religions), the distinction may become meaningless, and those on the outer should be just as important [to save/help] than those in the inner circles.

But most people place high significance on the proximity of people to self. But where do you draw the line? At what point do you say that the number of people in an outer circle outweigh the much smaller numbers in an inner circle?

Harry's dilemma doesn't involve pitting self against others. It's more like the possibility of saving large numbers in an outer circle against much smaller numbers in the inner.

Most people would not find themselves in that grapple. Most people are human, after all, and will uniformly consider any smaller circle more important than any number of people in a circle further out.

It's hard to be evolved enough to sacrifice, especially to sacrifice others for a still greater good.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Laura Nyro

Although Laura Nyro was before my time, I was hearing her ripples even before I knew what I was listening to.

Years down the track, when I heard the Fifth Dimension singing "Wedding Bell Blues", I instantly recognised it, knowing it well from radio airplay as a child, in 1970. I loved it then and I love it now. It's a very well-crafted pop song, a plaintive plea in a very upbeat melody, and upbeat phrasing.

Over the next few years, songs whose writing credits read "L. Nyro" (she pronounced it "Nero") filtered through again and again. Fifth Dimension again, with "Save The Country" and "Stone Soul Picnic", Blood Sweat and Tears doing a soulful "And When I Die", and Linda Ronstadt with an impressive "Stoney End".

But in most cases I know, it wasn't just the songs, but the arrangements, that were lifted holus bolus. Good enough to not to change. Much. The aforementioned "Wedding Bell Blues" was arranged as per Nyro, albeit slightly faster. Streisand's arrangement of "Stoney End", for all her voice could do, wasn't as smooth a journey as Nyro's or Ronstadt's.

The melodies were seductive, the lyrics had bite ("I was born of love, my poor father worked the mines, I was raised on the good book Jesus 'till I read between the lines"), and to top it all off, her singing was sublime - better, in most cases, than the more successful covers. Again, she was smooth, flowing through the melody with a faint jazz tinge and vocal hooks overlaying the melody hooks.

Her second major performance was at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, before she was 20. But she was a reluctant performer, and activity waned. Her star had peaked and faded before she was 25.

She was always far more influential than she was successful. Which is such a shame, with what she achieved in such a short time. Well worth seeking out.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Liberals' downhill slide

There was a blip about a month ago, where it looked like Australia’s impending election was going to be won by John Howard’s Liberals again. This was despite the healthy hole the relentless opinion polls had placed them in. But like entrails the charts had briefly turned in favour of the government, and hadn’t Howard always snatched victory from behind? That’s why the blip was there: too many times had the Liberals slowly crawled their way to the front in election year.

But it was only a small blot on the landscape. Since those days when hope momentarily raised an ugly head, reality has seeped back.

The expected omens are all turning up. Disunity in government ranks, reports of anonymous ministerial despair, etc etc. Now the signs are getting more direct:
- Howard asked his cabinet whether he was the problem. But pessimism had already taken hold, and nobody could be bothered piping up. Nobody had an alternative, of course.
- The ALP comes up with a corker of an ad campaign: the one where an old man stays in bed while the alarums are ringing for climate change, water shortage etc. A real winner.
- Howard delves into youTube. With a crummy policy anouncement on climate change that draws screeds of negative comments. His own stalwarts, however, can’t be bothered sitting through it. Or they don’t know how to access youTube.
- Peter Costello, as Treasurer and second-in-command, bags Howard with either faint praise or outright hostility. On his ability, truthfulness, and politics. The comments were made last year after Howard failed to pass over the baton (again), but the significant point here is that Costello is currently declining to repudiate his comments or even defend the Prime Minister faintly.

And the truth is out of the woodwork, via John Howard’s silent partner, his wife Janette:

“You talk about a whole lot of things when you're trying to convince people to do things but you don't go back and honour every single one of those unless you have made a firm commitment about it, and John wasn't into making firm commitments.”

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Testing arbitrary detention, or electoral fervour?

The continued incarceration of Queensland-based doctor Mohamed Haneef is quite a test of Australia's new terrorist detention laws.

Haneef is cousin of two Indian doctors who apparently made several attempts at terrorist action in Great Britain. Once the links were identified, he was swept up for detention and questioning. Magistrates renewed the detention, but he was eventually offered bail. Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews promptly revoked his visa, claiming he was "not of good character". Haneef's lawyer then delayed posting bail, to avoid immigration detention and expulsion.

Stalemate, to date.

On what grounds?

1) He passed on a sim card to his criminal relative before he left England;
2) He got a one-way ticket to India apparently to visit his wife and ailing child in India, but didn't mention that reason to a colleague;
3) He had "numerous and frequent" contacts with his relatives just before he attempted to leave - according to unsourced media reports.

Revocation of his visa (and interim immigration detention) is at the discretion of the Minister; the burden of proof is substantially lower than incarceration under the 2005 terrorism act.

Even if it transpires that he is guilty as sin, this is tantamount to an abuse of process. On the amount of evidence so far, it is entirely possible an innocent man could have been knocked about in exactly this way.

Question: is it better to lock up the guilty and the innocent, just in case? Does the threat of terrorism justify abrogation of habeas corpus? At what point is justice denied?

...Is torture justifiable if it provides information on terrorist acts?

Do we foster our own enemy when we act with brutality or without due process?

It can be seen as convenient for the Howard Government, which is not above whipping up xenophobia, as evidenced with the 2001 election win, on the back of their "children overboard" lies.

Still, it can easily backfire, if the tolerance of the electorate for that government is low. And it is.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Rearranging the evolutionary tree

Phylogeny is the study of the relatedness of species. How close are we to mice? How closely related are birds and reptiles? In the past, this has been figured on a morphological basis - that is, how closely physical features match. However, DNA analysis has in many cases turned on its head accepted wisdoms.

From the New Scientist, 16 June 2007 (Back to their roots):
"If you want to know how all living things are related, don't bother looking in any textbook that's more than a few years old."

But it's not only genetic analysis that has fostered the redesign of evolutionary maps. There is also the tool of molecular analysis, to develop a "molecular fingerprint" of different types of cells. This identifies a combination of characteristics that describes how molecules control a cell's genes, and what molecular signals a cell transmits and receives.

One of the new insights is a breakdown in the intuitive supposition that evolution involves a uniform move to increasing complexity. Plenty of examples have emerged to show organisms shedding characteristics that are no longer necessary. Whales shedding limbs is one example.

Parasitism provides other examples: loss of complexity can happen when motility is no longer needed. This is said to happen with a barnacle called Sacculina, which became parasitic (on crabs) at the larval stage, and so shed many characteristics of crustacea.

One area where this plays out is the control system. An invertebrate species called Platynereis dumerilii has a "neural net" type system, as opposed to a more sophisticated Central Nervous system. However, Detlev Arendt in Heidelberg claims through molecular fingerprinting that this species has more in common with vertebrates that descended from a putative common ancestor of bilaterals species called Urbilateria.

So... latest is not always best, and not always more complex than anything that has gone before. There is no evidence Homo sapiens have shed any characteristics. Yet... our brains are smaller than Neanderthals, which co-existed with humans, yet died out.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Lessons for climate change from the smoking debate?

“Only the most bigoted can possibly deny the weight of evidence against the cigarette: heavy smoking increases the chances of developing lung cancer. If the original statistical data… were not convincing enough, in the subsequent five years 19 additional and quite independent investigations in six different countries have established the point with a greater degree of certainty than that of almost any other correlation between any known disease and its cause.

“Yet there is a widespread feeling that the case against smoking cigarettes is not complete because no causal relationship has been established. This opinion is based on the fact that the mechanism by which smoking produces tumours is currently unknown. But exactly the same criticism applies to many other diseases, the causes of which are accepted without question.”

It’s pointless trying to persuade climate change deniers. They’ll always be there, on the fringes. The problem is, how to convince voters and politicians that the jury is NOT out.

It took decades for action to be taken over cigarettes. And that action may not have been what was initially expected:
- lawsuits;
- loading them with high taxes;
- reducing amenity through smoking bans in workplaces and public places.

Yet smoking was a relatively trivial issue, with the health issues limited and the doubt-sowers largely restricted to tobacco companies.

Contrast with Climate Change, where ‘the world as we know it’ is at stake (including significant biodiversity issues), the vested interests are more powerful and more widespread, and our whole economic infrastructure is affected, either side of action or no action. And we don’t have as much time to ameliorate the impacts.

The parallels illustrate well the difficulties in turning the ship around. But engaging the deniers is a distraction.

I hope there are further lessons from that earlier struggle of science to be heard.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Fallacies of the Sydney property market.

Much of the talk of housing affordability is just stupid politics.

Because of rocketing prices, purchasing a house in Sydney is harder than in the 17% interest years in the late 80s; we are witnessing the highest rate of bankruptcies since the boom times just before the last recession, piling truth into Keatings infamous characterisation of “the recession we had to have.”

As usual, Ross Gittens in the Herald has given a clear, succinct outline of the current situation. This involves differentiating between price rises in areas of high demand – close to the city, beaches and harbour – versus falling prices on the city fringes. Within the context of orthodox economics, it's simple supply and demand, of course. Subsidising first home buyers, extracting from superannuation for housing, and sharing equity with either banks or government are more like good politics than good policy, and all fuel price rises. Not that he presents especially useful policy for goverment, more that he debunks the bad.

Gittens: “...here's the point so many people find hard to understand: anything you could do to make it easier for people to afford to pay the existing prices is likely to prove counterproductive.”

Read the article.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Rule Of Four, and the Historical Mystery Thriller Novel template

“...I've never known which of the two was right. The world is a Jenny Harlow, I think; we're all just fisherman telling stories about the one that got away. But to this day, I'm not sure how Chaucer's Prioress interpreted Virgil, or how Virgil interpreted love. All that stays with me is the picture my father showed me, the part he never said a word about, where the two naked women are watching Love bully the satyr.”
- from The Rule Of Four.

Unbeknownst to most of us, there is a particular genre of novel: the Historical Mystery Thriller. Beware: here lie tawdry airport novels so cluttering the ground that literature is buried in the mud.

Exemplar extraordinaire, of course, is Dan Brown, whose Da Vinci Code knows no bounds. Readable, but hardly high-falutin', and sometimes cringeworthy. By contrast, cringes galore in its predecessor Angels And Demons (coming to your screen soon).

Once there was an idea. Then it became a template. Then it became a cliché.

‘The Eight’ by Katherine Neville. A novel of puzzles, with action divided between protagonists in two different centuries. The token is a fictional chess set.
‘Labyrinth’, by Kate Mosse. A novel of puzzles, with action divided between protagonists in two different centuries. The token is a fictional book set.
Da Vinci Code, Angels And Demons (you have been warned), and The Rule Of Four. And, lord help me, I saw a more in bookshops that were very direct template copies.

Doubtless this has been around a while, but the earliest template novel I’ve found is Katherine Neville’s, above. Elements: puzzles, history, chess, action across two centuries.

Of the ones mentioned, by far the best is The Rule Of Four, by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. There are criticisms to be had, for example the writers' youth and the preppy tone and setting (which haven't of themselves prevented good literature). But overall, this book is extraordinary literate – and literary. It reflects more that the writers' research ability – they have the depth of knowledge – and reflectiveness – that the genre badly lacks.

The token is a book dated from 1499 called Hypnerotomachia, aka the Struggle for Love in a Dream. Wilfully obscure in places, it could be the template for James Joyce in its use of multiple languages and neologisms aplenty. A rich source for mystery and exposition, and it gives Caldwell and Thomason an opportunity to soar on philosophical wings, while peppering the very enjoyable read with literature, puzzles, and murder.

Fortunately, it too is coming to a screen soon. No telling how it will pan out, but the book itself is rewarding.

“Besides the ancient book, what they shared was a deep investment in
abstractions. They believed in the notion of greatness – greatness of spirit,
destiny, grand design. Like twin mirrors placed face-to-face, their reflections
doubling back, they had seen themselves in earnest, and a thousand strong. It
was the strange and predictable consequence of their friendship that it left
them more solitary than when they began.”

Monday, July 09, 2007

Scientology - dangerous.

Scientology was a philosophy developed by failed science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard. He organised it into a church as a tax dodge. (Scientology is not to be confused with Christian Science, a Quaker-like Christian organisation which does good work.)


Judge for yourself. They are notoriously antipathetic to traditional psychiatry and traditional psychiatric treatments. Not a hard call, there are lots who say the same. But at a certain point, some drugs become the only viable treatment.

A Sydney woman was on medication which kept her stable. But after she moved back in with her parents, avowed Scientologists, she was persuaded to discontinue treatment. She discontinued the prescription drugs, which would seem to have led directly to her killing two family members. The report is not clear on whether the discontinuation of drugs was due to her Scientologist parents, but they certainly would have discouraged the treatment. And keeping her away from any kind of therapy is a recipe for disaster. Read the report.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Is a good word for Hamas akin to support for terrorism?

From a recent news report (from 4-July):

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum accused Johnston's captors of smearing the Palestinian people's reputation and of seeking "to prove to the world that we are a group of militias that fight each other to gain personal ends.''

Well. Quite right. The BBC had been so effective in campaigning for the release of their staffer Allan Johnston, that Hamas had little choice but to work for his release.

That is, if Hamas is not one of a "group of militias that fight each other to gain personal ends".

It does look like Hamas has evolved beyond simply that.

Not that I'm a supporter of Hamas - it's just worth noting that point.

As with another: Hamas was ousted from the Palestinian government. I can't see how this could be legal. Certainly with Hamas out of government, frozen aid for Palestine could flow again - and the European Union, as a good bellweather for ethics, was one of those organisations that froze support.

But if they're making any pretence that the Palestinian Authority is a legitimate government, then surely they have to follow their own legal framework. So how is it that Hamas can be summarily removed from the Palestinian government - whether one condones them or not?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

I'm just a drummer in a rock'n'roll band

It would be a bit sad if your last big gig was nearly 40 years ago. But that's drumming for you.

From the diary of Cathy Zoi, CEO of the Alliance for Climate Change [published in the SMH, but not online]:

" ...Chatting later to folks about involving new people in the climate change issue, a fellow guest piped in that Australia seemed a place of huge promise politically. He recalled a heroic effort many years ago when a smart and committed rock'n'roller ran for Parliament as an independent candidate and nearly got in*. I smiled and said: 'that same former rock'n'roller is now shadow minister of the environment.' I then asked: 'So John, what do you do?' The answer: 'I was the drummer for the Doors**.'"

* Peter Garrett, one-time singer for Midnight Oil, now my local MP.

** John Densmore, one-time drummer for The Doors, now pursuing various projects, such as writing, film production, talk circuit... and drumming.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Human evolution in perspective

Evolution keeps fascinating me. The earth is 4.5 billion years old, life on earth began 3.8 billion years ago, and the homo genus is only 2 million years old. The species Homo Sapiens is only about 250,000 years old, but only left Africa about 80 – 100,000 years ago. (Take a walk through Wikipedia articles on Homo Sapiens, human evolution, geologic time, and the single origin hypothesis.)

(There’s also the proposition that there was a human bottleneck about 70,000 years ago, which reduced the population of breeding pairs to between 1,000 and 10,000 – see the Homo Sapiens article – which is postulated to be due to the mammoth Toba volcanic eruption.)
The serious point here is that these changes are dramatically exponential, rather than linear.

A recent article on continuing evolution mentions a few other interesting facts, inter alia. For instance, that lactose tolerance emerged among European cattle herders only about 5,000 years ago.

It also mentions a genomic survey five years ago that found people were clustered on the basis of small DNA changes into five groups, roughly corresponding to the continents: Africans, Australian Aborigines, East Asians, American Indians, and Caucasians. That latter group includes everyone from Europe to India, including the Middle East.

I would add more recent changes that have a lasting effect on the population, such as the constant plagues in Europe in the middle ages, which had a dramatic impact on the population, and undoubtedly divided the genetic pool.

Ye The domination of dinosaurs prevented mammal expansion beyond the size of a shrew, but a chance meteor impact cleared away the larger animals that couldn't burrow or hide, and left the planet empty enough for the speciation of those who could.  And there's the Homo genus Neanderthal, which died out despite a larger brain capacity than us.

Species domination is not necessarily about being the "best and brightest": it’s about what survives the particular environments of the time.
...which doesn't bode well for us, if we're now powerful enough to destroy our own evolutionary niche, our environment.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Knowledge and the web

Sometimes I might sound like a know-it-all. In fact, it's the web that knows so much. I just know a few ways to find out about something - and a smoldering desire.

I really appreciate being able to find answers. I find before me niggling little questions all the time, in all aspects of life and knowledge. On one level, much of it is just trivia. But on another level, it's about integration - of knowledge, facts, and understanding. For the first time in my life, I can find out most of what I want to know; I can fill in all the little gaps that have been outstanding for decades.

Well, it's not that simple, of course.

First, I can't find all the answers. When the subject is sufficiently obscure, the odds are a lot lower. In particular, it's harder if the factoid is localised to a time or place, and that locale is not the here and now - more specifically, the U.S. and now. This is simply the weight of numbers, nothing more, nothing less. If I want the words to a Dave Graney song, well sorry, but Mr Graney's never built a great following in America.

Second, the issue of trust still looms large. Wikipedia I largely trust, but again it's more reliable when the information is not too obscure; being American helps again. But if the site's not got a reputation, it's harder to trust the information; even the more reputable sites can always be plain wrong.

Snopes, the urban myth site, is good. Very good, if trust is the issue and you want to track down the veracity of a claim or a story.

The third problem with this sort of knowledge is laziness - or lack of time, surfeit of trust, call it what you will. I don't have the time or desire to consult a variety of sources. Not the time to fully come to grips with a subject. The web has made it easier than ever to become allegedly knowledgeable without necessarily doing any more than skim the surface. If you're not careful, you can become prey to misinformation - or disinformation, more insidiously. But you can also gain a false confidence in your own level of knowledge, without having studied or learnt in a structured way. The best - worst - example of this is seeking out medical information. While you can find out a certain amount, if it isn't accompanied by a solid background and context for the knowledge, self-diagnosis can be downright dangerous.

On the one hand, I'm not going to try to become an expert at everything. On the other hand, a proper respect for the topic requires an amount of diligence. For example, the diligence to trace back the sources on Wikipedia.

This brings us to the true value of Wikipedia. Any information repository is only as good as its sources. And usually Wikipedia articles will either contain the references to allow the traceback, or note that a fact is unsourced.

Some time back, I found an excellent source for New Zealand pop music of the 60s and 70s, at sergent.com.au. It looks like it's been around for up to 10 years - the style is that old. It was obviously compiled by a real fan, and someone who lived in the era. Some of it is personal knowledge of the writer, Bruce Sergent; a lot of it must have been gleaned from publications, and particularly contact with the musicians of the time. But because it's so much more comprehensive than any other source on the web, there's very little chance of ascertaining the veracity of anything mentioned. Few sources are quoted. That's not to say it's unreliable; as with Wikipedia, the great majority of information that can be checked, does check out.

So this is the problem with knowledge, and it's not really very different from general epistemological issues. Anywhere, knowledge - as with history - is in the hands of the writer, and people arrive at some sort of consensus on the value of the knowledge.

This milieu is not a satisfactory substitute for formal, structured learning. Having said that, I've filled in a welter of gaps in my knowledge, and am learning, learning all the time how to find things out.